Debut Author Chat: Jayne Persian and the Beautiful Balts

Today I am delighted to publish a post written by Jayne Persian, lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland, and author of Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians. Her book was published this month by Small Publisher of the Year, NewSouth Books. This post is part of my ‘Debut Author Chat‘ series where authors who have recently published their first history discuss their book. 

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Head and shoulders of Jayne Persian

Jayne Persian, author of Beautiful Balts and lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland.

Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians tells the story of the first mass intake of refugees accepted into Australia: the 170,000 Central and Eastern Europeans who arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952. Characterised as ‘Beautiful Balts’, they were recruited in Europe by the Australian government, under the slogan of ‘populate or perish’: migrants were needed to bulk up the Australian population, and to solve a post-war labour shortage.

I open the book in Austria’s Drau Valley in May 1945. A 70,000-strong Russian Cossack force was waiting to discover its fate. They had fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union, had surrendered to the British and were hoping to remain in Austria as anti-Soviet refugees. What happened next is now infamous. Many of these men, women and children were forcefully handed over to the Soviets: there are allegations of brutality, automatic fire, suicides. Some people were trampled to death.

Small groups of Cossacks, including Ivan and Nastasia, managed to escape the round-up. Ivan, a Don Cossack, met Nastasia in 1943, when she was working as a forced labourer in eastern Ukraine under the Nazis. Ivan was much older, around 53 years old to her 17, but had offered her an escape from forced labour if she would marry and join him in his journey across Europe. They left Ukraine on 31 December 1943, travelling with the Cossack Army to Italy via Romania, Poland and Hungary. In Italy, in a shed during a bomb attack, her first son was born. Little Maxim died at 14 weeks of age, of malnutrition. From Italy, Nastasia and Ivan journeyed over mountain ranges, evading Italian partisans, to apparent safety with the Cossack camp outside Lienz.  After witnessing the merciless repatriation of their camp, the small groups fled up the snow-covered mountains and hid in ravines, surviving by killing sheep at night, while evading British patrols. After three months of this, Ivan and Nastasia were caught by Austrian police and sent to Kapfenberg displaced persons’ camp. Continue reading

A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books and links referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

ilw-2016Each July, book blogger Lisa Hill encourages bloggers to review books written by indigenous authors from around the world. She chooses ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ to coincide with the Australian annual celebration of indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week.

Book cover of Auntie Rita

Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

This week was NAIDOC Week so I searched my book shelves for a book to read by an indigenous author. As I have already reviewed two new books by Australian Aboriginal authors this year (Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt and Pictures from my memory by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis) I decided to review a highly regarded book from the 1990s. Twenty-two years after it was first published I have finally read Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

Rita Huggins shares her life from her earliest years living on her country in what we know as Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. The land sustained her Bidjara-Pitjara people but born in 1922, Rita Huggins and her people were in the sights of a government which was forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land and into reserves. Rita Huggins tells of the traumatic day when she and her family were herded onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her country again.

This book is not a standard memoir. It is also a dialogue between Rita Huggins and her daughter Jackie. At various points through the narrative Jackie Huggins expands on points her mother makes, add her memories and sometimes challenges her mother. In doing this both mother and daughter are unsettling the memoir genre. We are all social beings. We not only live in a social context, we are challenged and have to adjust our thoughts and behaviours in response to those we live and work with. Yet writing a memoir is one of the most solitary practices. The dialogue in this memoir gives us a peek into a mother/daughter relationship. While Auntie Rita quite rightly dominates the book, the reader at times has the feeling that they are at a kitchen table listening to Auntie Rita talk about her life with Jackie sometimes chiming in with a comment about what her mother is saying. Auntie Rita says: Continue reading

Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? Continue reading

Refugees: Custodians of a Nation’s History

Book cover with face of Manijeh Saatchi

Manijeh: Not only a change of name by Manijeh Saatchi with the assistance of Fereshteh Hooshmand (George Ronald: 2014).

The people we share a train carriage with on the way to work, the hundreds we pass in a busy shopping centre, all these people carry a story within them. Each story is changing, developing and interlinked with others. Each story is a multi-faceted tile that helps to build the complex, mosaic of human life on this planet.

Fortunately for us Brisbane resident, Manijeh Saatchi, with the help of her daughter, Fereshteh Hooshmand, has shared her memories in the book, Manijeh: Not only a change of name. It is a classic tale of an ostensibly ordinary person who has faced extraordinary hurdles in her life. In telling it, she takes us to a culture, time and place very different to our own.

Manijeh Saatchi was born in 1929 in Iran to a poor family. It was a hard life, and was not made easier when Manijeh and her husband, Javad, decided to change their religion and become members of the Baha’i Faith.

Manijeh and Javad lived in the southern city of Shiraz. Less than one hundred years before they became members of the Baha’i community, a young Shirazi merchant had caused a tumult throughout the Persia, as Iran was then called. He became known as The Báb (pronounced Bahb) and urged all to prepare themselves for the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messenger of God. His message captivated the nation but many were opposed and the followers of The Báb suffered terribly from the prejudice and violence which ensued. Nineteen years later Baha’u’llah, the son of a Persian nobleman, declared He was the Messenger of God about Whom The Báb was referring. Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith on the principle of bringing harmony among the diverse peoples of the world, yet the followers of this new religion suffered terribly from prejudice and repression fanned by those in power. Waves of violence against Baha’is in Persia were always around the corner.

Despite his peace-loving nature, the neighbourhood children could often be heard calling him ‘kafar’, which meant infidel. The children would not include him in any game which included physical contact, as they would say that he was ‘najess’ or unclean.

Manijeh had witnessed the harassment of Baha’is during her childhood. She and Javad knew her lives would not be easy when they became Baha’is. Facing poverty and rejected by their families they moved to the southern port city of Bushehr where they became custodians for the building from which The Báb had worked a century before. Continue reading

A Gleam of Hope

2015-09-09 10.24.36 Hand and FingerI am in Melbourne for a few weeks for someone very special.

Our first grandchild was born a couple of weeks ago.

It was not only the first grandchild on both sides of the family, but the first great-grandchild for all great-grandparents.

She is so calm and quiet when we are around although the parents have had some sleepless nights. She squawks a bit on the change table but then sees something on the wall and stops crying even though she has no clothes on. She has not inherited her grandmother’s loud voice!

Last weekend Hubble and I were on grandparent duty looking after her in the hospital waiting room while her mother was sleeping. I have nothing much to report as the baby just slept and woke every four hours for a feed, then slept. What an ideal first baby!

Many things have not changed since our children were born in the 1990s. The hoo-ha around birth is the same as ever. Parents and grandparents still think their baby is the most gorgeous baby they have seen. The plastic cribs new-born babies are kept in are the same, as are the flannel gowns with ties on the back that hospitals provide for newborns. The nappy fold for newborn babies still seems to be the ideal fold. While my brain could not quite remember it, my hands automatically did it when I relied on muscle memory.

Mothers still have ultrasounds – albeit better resolution and at different stages of pregnancy. There has been progress on finding the causes of sudden infant death syndrome. They seem to have settled on placing babies on their backs when in the cot.

Some things are deteriorating. Sadly, hospitals are now contributing to our ever-expanding landfill because they no longer provide a cloth nappy and laundry service for new-born babies so parents end up using disposable nappies. Food for breast-feeding mothers in public hospitals is ridiculously meagre. My daughter counted five pieces of penne pasta in her ‘dinner’. Rice and cous cous are regarded by the hospital as vegetables – and only one ‘vegetable’ is allowed in a meal. So much for the dietary guidance of the National Health and Medical Research Council. Even hospitals don’t follow it.

Menu C

At any rate we stepped in and ensured she had enough to eat.

Other aspects of life have changed profoundly. Now, parents need to develop a social media policy ready for the birth. How much do you want disclosed on Facebook? What should you do to protect the baby’s privacy?

When our children were born I kept the newspaper of the day as a memento, but hard copy newspapers are such a minor thing nowadays I didn’t bother. Now grandparents like us get their news off social media and websites. We blog, tweet and use Facebook (although I use Facebook reluctantly).

A blog can be many things including a personally curated news summary. So this post was intended as a twenty-first century version of recording the news in brief for the first week of our grand-daughter’s life. However, as I started writing it became a litany of the world’s woes. Those newspapers we kept when our children were born would have been similar.

I have found it quite confronting writing this with the image of our grand-daughter as a baby in my mind. One day she will be grown up and mature enough to read about the history of the times she was born in, but I can’t bring myself to write about it for someone who I see as a baby now.

I have drawn up this compendium in part by referring back to my tweets of the last couple of weeks. I find that Twitter is great for helping me hear about things that might not be publicised in Australia, as well as an opportunity to contribute news that my network may not be aware of. My tweeting policy is to focus on those news items which will alert people to injustices and that by sharing will raise awareness and therefore help all of us to treat people more fairly. I also tweet news that contributes knowledge that will help improve the world. I avoid the daily grind of political barbs. Life is too short to be weighed down by that.

So while the following news briefs discuss some of the dreadful things that are occurring in the world, each item also includes a gleam of hope. Continue reading

“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

Continue reading

Bombs, Clothes Lines and Jeeps

A partially opened door to our bomb shelter.

The entrance to our bomb shelter, note the ventilation hole above the door.

Our apartment in Singapore is like most apartments in Australia but one corner of it is quite different.

We have a bomb shelter.

Yes, our nine-year old apartment has a fair dinkum bomb shelter. This is because all apartments in Singapore are required to have a bomb shelter under Singapore’s Civil Defence Shelter Act 1997.

As you can see from the thick door and walls, this room is designed to withstand a blast.

The bomb shelter is the strongest place in the apartment so when an explosion hits the idea is that the building crumbles but the bomb shelter stands strong. The shelters in a building are placed on top of each other for reinforcement. You might be 23 stories in the sky with a sheer drop outside your bomb shelter door but you are safe, albeit squashed in a small, dark room on top of a lot of other small, dark rooms. Continue reading